2014: Full Speed Ahead

The new year has gotten off to a snow start, though.

For us here at SophSoft, Incorporated and Digital Gamecraft, 2014 is starting a little bit later than originally scheduled.  We took our usual couple of weeks off at the turn of the year, but the weather decided to insert itself into our plans.  On the first full day of our break, we were hit by a serious ice storm, and although we were very lucky to be mostly unaffected by the power outages, our immediate neighbors were without electricity until New Years Eve.  Fortunately, they were back online just in time to watch the Michigan State University Spartans win the Rose Bowl!

On the first day “back” from the break, we received more than 18 inches of snow, which essentially shut down all of East Lansing and surrounding communities for a couple of days.  Although we could still get development work done, the first priority was digging out, and that took many hours of physical effort, so it was not easy to just jump right back onto the project schedule.  On top of that, we received several pieces of personal news, both bad and good, so it was an emotional week, too.   (Personally, I managed to get sick in the midst of all of this, from which illness I am still recovering.)

Nevertheless, despite the slow ramp up, we are now approaching full speed ahead with game development in 2014.  We added some newer development systems to assist with our desktop and mobile development, so now we have a state-of-the-art environment for creating games for Windows (up to 8.1), Mac OS X (through Mavericks), Linux (Ubuntu), iOS, Android, Windows Phone, HTML 5, Silverlight, Flash, Xbox 360, OUYA, and more.  If anybody needs to contract some programming talent, you can contact me here.

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (Russia) are just three weeks away, and we expect to have unprecedented coverage, both through our @DGOlympics twitter feed, where we will again provide results for all events (as we did for the London Summer Olympics in 2012), as well as through a new (broader) game site that we plan to announce shortly.  If you have any interest in the Olympic Games, please follow us at @DGOlympics and spread the word.

On the Solitaire front, our top priority is finishing the substantial rebuild of Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition and the other Goodsol Solitaire Engine games.  While we have, unquestionably, the best technical platform (and the most games) for the Mac, we are revisiting the interface to make it even more fun to play.  Of course, we are also planning to add many more new games in our relentless march toward 1000. :)

We have a new iOS upgrade for Demolish! Pairs (and later, Demolish! Pairs FTP) in the works.  We are adding (at least) one new play mode, by popular request, and several other new features.  (The exact list of features will be determined based on scheduling considerations.)  Of course, you can buy Demolish! Pairs on the App Store now and get the upgrade for free when it is released.

There are currently three more major projects in design and development, but I will announce each of those here at an appropriate (later :) ) time.  Additionally, there are always a number of maintenance projects which, at this point, include changes to our iOS games mandated by Apple to be “optimized for iOS 7″, modifications to most of our Windows games to properly handle touch interface changes made in Windows 8.1, and of course, everything can use a fresh coat of virtual paint for 2014.

Rather than spend any more time typing about this, I should get back to actual development work, as 2014 is looking to be our most exciting year yet!

Free-to-Play Take 1: Rejected

The first submission of Demolish! Pairs FTP was rejected by Apple.

As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to embrace the free-to-play concept fully (if perhaps halfheartedly).  Unfortunately, my first attempt for iOS did not result in reciprocation, as Apple reviewers rejected the IAP (In-App Purchase) products submitted with the product, Demolish! Pairs FTP.  (Alas, it took the product 8 days to get a review, which then lasted only 15 minutes before the rejection notice.)

I had designed what I thought was a well-balanced menu of (4) IAP products, ranging from a “Golden Ticket” at $3.99 (the current price of the “paid” game) down to an inexpensive “Two Day Pass“.  This last item ran afoul of a guideline I had overlooked:

Content subscriptions using IAP must last a minimum of 7 days and be
available to the user from all of their iOS devices

The inclusion of that product was intended to mimic a standard overnight video rental, which is a clearly established mechanism for viewing movies, instead applied to a downloadable video game.  I felt that the inclusion of a $0.99 item (subscription, in this case) was important to anchor the bottom end and provide a quick, low resistance, purchase option for the customer.  The economics also basically require that a product priced in such a manner be something of a standalone, since the gap between pricing tiers is 1 dollar US, so this lowest (non-free) tier does adequately fill the space between any two other tiers; the short subscription would have met the need quite nicely.

I accepted the decision (since I had completely missed this restriction in my earlier review of submission guidelines), but not without registering my thoughts on the matter:

I realize that you do not have the authority to overrule the cited guideline, but I personally feel that it is misguided and stifles innovation.  In particular, overnight rentals have been well-established in the video rental industry, and our “Two Day Pass” option was intended to be analogous.  Now we have no method to test the acceptability of this approach (to customers) under iOS.

Indeed, I do intend to experiment with this option under Android, if possible (and I will read payment guidelines with this in mind), since one major goal of this whole procedure is to learn what does and does not work in this arena.

Preparing a second submission

Clearly, Apple was not going to allow me to experiment with this idea (as is), and I was convinced that extending the subscription to 7 days would unbalance the design, as would increasing the price of what was, very deliberately, the most inexpensive choice.  Besides, the “Two Day Pass” idea was already engraved in button artwork. :)

Rather than taking a bat to my IAP product design and hoping it remained stable, or delaying release long enough for a redesign to accommodate a different low end option, I decided to simply remove the “Two Day Pass” entirely, initially offering only 3 IAP products for sale.  Although the anchor I wanted is no longer there, this whole exercise is somewhat experimental and, certainly, incomplete data now is better than complete data delayed (and, hence, no data in the interim).

It pained me, due to the many hours of design, implementation, and testing, but it was far easier to remove the option than to add it in the first place; the second submission of Demolish! Pairs FTP was completed on the same day as the initial rejection.

Planning for the future

The design for the free-to-play version of Demolish! Pairs already envisions several updates to the IAP system that were not (fully) implemented for the initial release.  A replacement for the inexpensive subscription product was just added to the list of features to be added in future upgrades, and an idea is already in the works.

With the removal of the fourth product button from the store page, the “hole” in that page looks even larger than it did previously.  However, the view actually contains (hidden) controls for some of the upcoming options, including the fourth product button, so the store will look progressively better as we roll out these features.  Of course, all of that is premised on the free-to-play edition actually registering on the income needle.

So, now we wait (again)…

Mental Retooling

Grizzled veteran embraces free-to-play concept.

In my last post, You Lost Me at ‘Buy’, I was ranting about a scenario that really had me down-heartened about the direction of the game (and, in particular, mobile game) industry.  However, not being one to wallow, I already had a plan in motion (and development) to adapt to the changing landscape of the business I chose (back in the 80s) to be part of.

In the two months since that post, I have been working on Demolish! Pairs FTP, a free-to-play version of our latest iOS release.

In truth, the process was already underway when I made that blog post, but a comment from Joel Davis, along with an intense read of the book he recommended, Free-to-Play: Making Money from Games You Give Away, by Will Luton, caused me to revisit the (free-to-play) design from the top, with a different attitude and approach.

I ended up with a separate design document just for the free-to-play features that was longer than the design document for the game itself.  I did not change anything about the actual gameplay, deciding against banner advertisements that would adversely affect the experience, and determined not to allow “pay to win” in any sense.  However, I did incorporate several features into the product (interface) to allow for free-to-play, including certain (temporary) game restrictions and advertising, as well as means of playing for “free” forever (wherever time is a valueless commodity).

To be clear, I “embrace” free-to-play approximately the same way as I might embrace a great aunt who I have never met, and may never see again.  Of course, if it turns out that this great aunt happens to want to enhance my income substantially, then the least I could do would be to visit more often and get to know her, and my embrace may grow sincere.  It would be the polite thing to do. :)

In the world outside that metaphor, the new version is designed to allow, and encourage, players to give us money for the fun product we have created.  However, it does not force anybody to part with money and, actually, players may not be significantly restricted until they get decent at the game.  The other major drive and purpose of the free-to-play version is to get information about the market, relative to the paid version.  Although the first/paid version of Demolish! Pairs did make some money, that income stream deteriorated to the point that the possibility of cannibalizing sales with a “free” version is no longer a serious risk.  (A game needs to make a meaningful contribution to keeping our company in business, or it may as well be free anyway.)

So, I created this new free-to-play edition, Demolish! Pairs FTP, over the last couple of months (in addition to a whole new round of iOS solitaire game updates for Goodsol Development).  The actual development time for just the FTP (which does not stand for what you think it stands for) version was 80% of the time it took to build the original iOS (paid) version of the game from the prototype.  The game has been submitted to the App Store, so now we are just waiting for approval (I hope), after which we will see how the initial sales stack up against the initial sales of the paid version.

The free-to-play edition should have a much longer tail than the paid version, so when (<optimism>) this new version matches or exceeds the income of the paid version over the critical first 3 days, and then grows instead of plummeting, then my attitude will truly be changed (</optimism>).  I have a very specific target in mind for iOS to be considered a successful platform for us, and I am anxious to see whether we make that goal.

I plan to write more about the free-to-play features and results once there are actual results to consider.  In the meantime, you can buy (the original version of) Demolish! Pairs in the App Store, with no ads nor restrictive baggage.

Note: If we get at least 350 purchases of Demolish! Pairs 1.0 before the end of this month [October], Digital Gamecraft will donate $1000 to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, plus 50% of all net proceeds for sales beyond 350 (before November 1).

You Lost Me at ‘Buy’

Game development can really suck sometimes.

Let me set the (completely true) scene for you.  My wife and I are at an informal dinner with several other people, none of whom we had ever met before, except for my cousin (the only reason we were there).  At some point, while waiting for our meals, he started talking about our game, Demolish! Pairs, and when somebody wondered about it, he pulled out his iPhone and started demonstrating it.  One of his acquaintances showed interest in the game, so he told her, “You can buy it on the App Store.”  Then, to me, he asked, “How much is it, again?

She did not even wait for my reply before saying to him, “You lost me at ‘buy’.:(

Although I was disappointed and slightly shocked at the direct rejection of Demolish! Pairs (or any game) on the basis of it not being free, it was not until days later until I realized exactly how much it was really bothering me.  This is truly a depressing sentiment for somebody who makes a living developing games.  I hope this rant exorcises that particular demon from my thoughts.

Point 1:  Games should NOT be free.  Worthwhile people are willing to pay for their games explicitly, rather than requiring coercive “free-to-play” schemes.

Shortly thereafter, we heard the common refrain about none of them really playing games anyway, followed again by the increasingly frequent mention that, ‘what I do play is this app called Candy Crush.’  Then, pretty much everybody admitted that they all play that game, and these “not real gamers” started discussing the game, including specifics of their approaches to winning and getting 3 stars on every level!

Point 2:  You DO play games; every interesting person does.  Playing a casual game is still playing a game.  In fact, that is the most common form of gamer.

It is gravely insulting to hear, repeatedly, that the games we develop somehow do not count as real games.  Just because a game does not involve a console and game controller, and shooting people on screen, does not make it any less of a game.  Lots of people play Call of Duty, but ridiculous numbers of people also play Candy Crush.  I do not like to segment people into hard-core/mid-core/casual/social/live/whatever gamers; they are all gamers.  Please enjoy Pretty Good MahJongg and Demolish! Pairs, but do not tell me that you are not playing a game while doing so.

Now, Candy Crush is the current flavor of the day, and that is a position it deserves.  It is a game based on a proven (addictive) mechanic, with a clear theme, nice artwork and audio to match the theme, and excellent execution of a good design.  For this effort, it currently earns more than $800,000 per day on iOS alone.  Puzzles and Dragons is reportedly earning $3.75 million per day!  By contrast, most games earn very little, and Forbes reports that the average iOS app earns only $4000 (lifetime), which is still far better than either Android or Windows Phone.  Needless to say, no proper game developer can make a living on an “average” iOS app.

Point 3:  Just because some games are reporting unbelievable revenue figures, it does not mean that the game industry, as a whole, is healthy.

Right now, more than ever before, we are seeing a huge influx of games on the market.  Lower barriers to entry have created a glut of content, much of it not very good, and this makes “discoverability” a serious problem.  Essentially every programmer I have ever met in my career has created a game at some point, usually while learning.  The difference, now, is that a much larger percentage (and total number) are taking these experiments and school projects and publishing them, either for free or on the off chance that they might make some “beer money”, while working a different job or living with their parents.

The result of all of this is that they are essentially peeing in the pool in which professional game developers have to swim.  Small (or “indie”, if you prefer) developers, in particular, have to deal with a ceiling of games with large development teams and huge marketing budgets, and a floor muddied by hundred of thousands of mediocre games (at best) that only serve to make our games harder to find and exposure much more difficult.  The current situation is unsustainable in the long run.

To be clear, I am very frustrated, but I am not about to “pull a Phil Fish“.  However, if our products do not find an audience to achieve significantly more than average sales, we will not be able to stay actively in business.  Sure we might be able to produce some games in our spare time while writing boring accounting software or designing web sites, but that would be barely acceptable after two decades as a full-time game developer.

To end on a positive note, however…  I overhead a conversation among some of the young people I know, and they were complaining about the IAP (in-app-purchases) in Plants vs Zombies 2, saying that they would much rather just pay for the game than being constantly bombarded with IAP (and not insisting that they were not gamers :) ), so perhaps the pendulum is starting to swing back, away from “free-to-play”.

 

TableTop Day 2013 Wrapup

Everybody (hosts and guests) had a great time.

[Note that house rules dictate that winner (or new guest) chooses next game.]

… and now we are even better equipped for our next Game Night!